There have been many London plans in the past, and now there is another London plan in the news. In the past, it was mostly MQM supremo Altaf Hussain sitting in London who hatched one conspiracy after another to maintain his control on the strategic city of Karachi. Later, Zardari held many meetings in the British capital. In the last couple of years, PTI-PAT meetings in London have made the headlines.
But this time, it is another ball game, and much more interesting. Previously, it was those out of power who conspired in London. But now it is the sitting government in Pakistan represented by PM Khaqan Abbasi and other senior ministers who are constantly shuttling between London and Islamabad to plan a return of disqualified Nawaz Sharif to power.
Apparently, ex-PM Nawaz Sharif is in London to look after his ailing wife. But don’t forget that his two sons have their permanent abode in London and hold vast properties there. London is a sort of second home for the Sharif family. Especially after being ousted from power, Nawaz Sharif has almost shifted to London and been running the government from there.
Over the last four weeks, he had summoned the top government and party leadership for frequent consultations, sparking speculation in the media about a new London plan in the offing. What feeds the rumour mills is the servile remarks by no less than the incumbent prime minister and his ministers that Nawaz Sharif is the real prime minister and they all are dummies.
The huddle of the top PML-N leaders in London last week set in motion the rumour mills working overtime again. The confabulations with PM Abbasi stopping over in London twice assumed great significance against the backdrop of the bailable arrest warrant issued for Nawaz Sharif and his sons for failing to appear before the accountability court and the brewing revolt within the party ranks.
It was not the first time that Nawaz Sharif summoned to London prime minister Abbasi and several members of the cabinet for deliberations. But the issue this time was much more serious. The meeting was called to chart the future course of action to deal with the serious crisis facing the ruling party whose head has been removed through a judicial verdict. As we saw later, following the London consultations, Nawaz Sharif returned to the country to face trial in the accountability court.
But, as usual, it was a glum Nawaz, defiant and obstinate, with the Abbasi government adding to the atmospherics by according him the protocol and privilege of a sitting prime minister. To all indications, the lobby in favour of shunning the policy of confrontation with other State institutions has been overruled because Nawaz Sharif has left nobody in doubt that the minus-one formula is not acceptable to him. According to the latest information, Nawaz Sharif and his group of supporters have also decided that the party will now put its full focus on the coming elections.
What is more, any doubt about Nawaz Sharif’s staying on as president of the party has been removed. That has strengthened Sharif’s position as the unchallenged party head. It means that PML-N’s campaign in the coming elections will revolve around him. Some media reports say that the dominant view in the PML-N is that the party should go into the general elections in Nawaz Sharif’s name. But it should not be forgotten that the situation could dramatically change in the next few months if the court rules against the Sharif family in the ongoing corruption cases.
As things stand, the ousted prime minister is still in effective control of the party and government and running the Abbasi administration. This is affecting relations between the Abbasi government and state institutions, especially the security establishment. Needless to say, this duality is not only vitiating the political atmosphere in the country but also poses a threat to the democratic process.
Another crisis Nawaz Sharif is facing is growing resentment among party members who are in favour of a more moderate approach and want Shahbaz Sharif to be installed at the top. This is so because a majority of PML-N parliamentarians is worried about its own political future in case Nawaz Sharif is convicted by the accountability court.
It is no longer a secret that over the past few weeks the intra-family and intra-party rifts have further deepened, due to the truculent and aggressive stance taken by Maryam Nawaz. Her oversized political persona and frontal attacks on the state institutions have been a major cause in widening the gulf within the family as well as creating difficulties for the party and Nawaz Sharif.
Maryam’s recent interview with The New York Times in which she said that the family has decided to give her a leadership role came as bombshell to Shahbaz Sharif and his circle of supporters. Over time she has built a strong support base among the younger party leaders who see her as more dynamic and charismatic than Shahbaz Sharif and Hamza Sharif. Her repeated visits to her family constituency in Lahore underline her political ambitions. But, in the long run, all her plans may fall flat if, like her father, she is also convicted by the accountability court.
All said, PML-N is facing an existential crisis. Despite the show of solidarity with the ousted prime minister at the London meetings, the top and middle level party leaders are unsure about the way forward. Former interior minister Nisar Ali Khan’s recent statement that the larger interests of PML-N should not be sacrificed for saving its leader is indicative of which way the wind will blow in the coming days.